The Paleo diet is considered one of the most naturally clean ways of eating, but how does that translate into athletic performance, as the needs of athletes vary greatly depending upon one’s sport and level of activity. The needs of a marathon runner are quite different from those of a football player for example.

Eating Paleo can be a great way for both performance and recovery.  But the longer endurance sports like Triathlon place demands on the body that were not normal for our Stone Age ancestors and this is one exception to the rule to consider when trying to use a pure paleo diet.

As Loren Cordain, Ph.D., one of the leading experts of the paleo diet says “Rapid recovery is the biggest issue facing such an athlete. While it’s not impossible to recover from such training loads on a strict Paleo Diet, it is somewhat more difficult to recover quickly. By modifying the diet before, during, and immediately following challenging workouts, the Paleo Diet provides two benefits sought by all athletes: quick recovery for the next workout, and superior health for the rest of your life.”

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So, let’s look at the 3 key stages for any athlete.

Stage I: Eating Before Exercise

Athletes should generally eat low to moderate glycemic index carbohydrates at least two hours prior to a hard, long workout or race. There may also be some fat and protein in this meal.

Stage II: Eating During Exercise

During long/hard workouts and during competition the need for high glycemic index carbohydrates increases and in most sports, generally this will be consumed in the form of fluids. Sports lasting less than about an hour (including warmup) don’t really require any carbohydrate. Water will suffice for these.

A starting point that Loren Cordain recommends when deciding how much to take in is 200 to 400 calories per hour modified according to body size, experience and the nature of the sport. Fruit will suffice for most sports over that hour period, but this is when we get to the longer endurance sports as mentioned before like Triathlons and sticking to a pure paleo diet can become harder.

Some experts say that if you get the pre and post training/competition meals right then you can stick to a paleo diet, where others will argue that you need sports drinks/gels to maintain performance. My opinion is that both have validity and depends on the athlete.

paleo diet for athlete2

Stage III: Eating Immediately After

Scientific literature shows that during the post-exercise period, within roughly 30-45 minutes of training or competition, eating a carbohydrate/protein snack, generally with a 4:1 carbohydrate-to-protein ratio and liberal use of good fats, is essential to stimulate re-synthesis of muscle proteins and replenish glycogen

A meal of lean protein sources such as chicken, lean beef, turkey, pork loin and sea food are ergogenic (performance enhancing) because of the large amount of branched chain amino acids (BCAA’s), which are crucial in recovery after hard training and competition, both for strength and endurance athletes. Add to that a good source of paleo friendly carbohydrates such as sweet potatoes, butternut squash or fruit, will optimize repair of muscle tissue and to ensure muscle glycogen is optimally replenished.

Two points that I want to add here;

1- I would recommend that athletes maintain a rather consistent protein intake year round. The top experts seem to agree for the best possible performance, athletes should eat at least 1g of protein per lb of bodyweight per day.

2- The amount of carbohydrate will vary based on how large you are and the volume and intensity of your training. The larger you are or the harder/longer the training, the more carbohydrate you will generally need to optimize recovery, so use the 4:1 ratio as a guideline and adjust accordingly

That 30-45 minute window can be critical for recovery. It should be your highest priority after a hard workout or competition.

For power athletes, such as track and field athletes, football players, Olympic weightlifters and other athletes who place a premium on strength, power and exceptionally low body fat levels, most meals should be built around lean proteins, a variety of low carbohydrate density vegetables

Power athletes may find benefit from a higher intake from Paleo friendly carbs once or twice per week, which is known as a “cyclical-low carbohydrate” diet and has been enormously popular within this field.

For Extended Recovery, continue to focus on carbohydrates, especially moderate to high glycemic load carbohydrates along with protein and fat. It’s important to maintain glycogen levels in the muscle and liver to sustain all activities, especially over the course of several days afterwards.

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